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From cocaine-fueled gangster themes to tiny details on the hubs
Live coverage of the 2012 Tour de France prologue from Liège.
Welcome to Cyclingnews' live coverage of the 2012 Tour de France. We're just minutes away from the start of the prologue, with Tom Veelers (Argos-Shinamo) the first man due down the start ramp on Liège's Avenue Rogier at 14:00 local time.
A full list of start times can be found here and if you scroll down to the bottom of the article, you can find Chris Boardman's excellent video analysis of today's prologue. Victor in Lille in 1994, Rouen in 1997 and Dublin in 1998, Boardman knows a thing or two about coping with the pressures of the opening day of the Tour.
Veelers rolls down the start ramp and the 99th Tour de France gets underway. The next man in the start house will be Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).
Simon Gerrans is out on the road. The Australian has had a fine 2012 to date, capped by his victory at Milan-San Remo. He'll expect to be in contention for stage honours over the course of the coming three weeks, but on the eve of the race, he was coy about revealing precisely where he hopes to strike.
It's certainly a fast course - Veelers went through the 3.5km time check in a time of 3:49 and reaches the finish in 7:47.
Gerrans is the next man to approach the finish, and he hits the line in 7:42, 5 seconds quicker than Veelers, He won't last long on top of the leaderboard, however, as word reaches us that Andriy Grivko (Astana) and Aleksandr Kuchynski (Katusha) are positively hurtling around the circuit.
Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol) always cuts a distinctive figure, and there are hearty cheers for the Belgian as he rolls down the start ramp and sets off on his Tour endeavour.
As expected, Grivko sets the new best time at the finish, stopping the clock in 7:28, fully 14 seconds quicker than Gerrans.
Kuchynski was slightly quicker at the 3.5km mark, it will be interesting to see what kind of time he can post at the finish. The time check comes just towards the end of the exposed section of the course along the Meuse. Thereafter, the riders swing back through the centre of town and to the finish near the Parc d'Avroy.
It seems that the there were some gremlins in the timing system and rumours of Kuchynski's TT prowess were greatly exaggerated. The times have now been corrected - Grivko's 3:41 was the fastest at the intermediate check and his 7:28 is comfortably the quickest at the finish.
Kuchynski clocked a modest 7:55. Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar) has the second quickest time of the day thus far, 10 seconds down on the flying Grivko.
Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) are both out on the course, and posting respectable times at the 3.5km check - 3 and 4 seconds down on Grivko respectively.
The next man to start is Arthur Vichot (FDJ-BigMat). He won't make any impact today but the French finisseur is a decent bet to pick up a stage win somewhere along the way. Like many of the youngsters at FDJ-BigMat, he has benefited from stepping up to WorldTour level this year, as he proved with a canny stage win in the Dauphiné at Rumilly.
Tyler Farrar sets off under blue skies in the new Garmin-Sharp kit. It looks as though the rain will stay away at least for this afternoon.
Marcel Kittel has the second best time to date, 6 seconds down on Grivko. A world championship medallist in the time trial as an under 23, Kittel has focused on sprinting as a professional, but his pedigree is still apparent.
Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) starts the final Tour of his career to raucous cheers on the Avenue Rogier.
Farrar has turned in a very decent time, his 7:34 is good enough for 4th place so far. As soon as he crosses the line, he zips down his skinsuit, his face a mask of exertion. Conditions are quite close out there today.
Second fastest time for Jens Voigt at the finish, 4 seconds down on Grivko. Meanwhile, Steve Cummings (BMC) has reached the midway point just 1 second down on Grivko. The Briton is setting a very useful target time for Cadel Evans.
Cummings holds his rhythm over the second part of the course, and hits the line with the new second best time, 3 seconds down on Grivko.
Former world champion Bert Grabsch (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) shakes his head as he crosses the line with only the 11th best time. The German was churning a massive gear but he never looked at ease over the course and comes in 11 seconds down.
Although there are two roundabouts that require some caution on the banks of the Meuse, the course is certainly not the most technical prologue in recent memory: the bends are sweeping rather than sharp and the streets relatively wide.
David Millar is next to set off. It will be interesting to see how the Scot fares - he was ill during the week and even quarantined by his team for a night - so he may be hard pressed to challenge Grivko's time today.
8th place for Millar at the time check, 3 seconds down on Grivko. He climbs out of the saddle on a brief rise away from the river, trying to summon up every last ounce of energy.
Into the final kilometre for Millar, his body rolling every so slightly.
Millar finished out well over the second part of the course, and gets to the finish in second place, 3 seconds down on Grivko. Considering his illness, Millar can't be too disappointed with that.
Cyclingnews caught up wtih Millar's teammate David Zabriskie at the start area, and asked if he could replicate his time trial performance from the Tour of California. "You just never know with me. The Tour of California time trial was a little bit longer but I’m feeling good," he said. "I've got experience so we'll see."
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) has also been warming up outside his team bus. It's a big Tour de France for the Dutchman, as he bounces back from a crash-laden 2011. He had a fine Tour of California and a solid Tour de Suisse, but his season is all about La Grande Boucle.
For today, however, Gesink just wants to get to the finish in one piece and without having lost any significant time to Wiggins, Evans et al. "There’s a lot of enthusiastic people out to watch. There are two key roundabouts where you almost stand still and there’s a lot of wind out there but it’s an okay course. I’m not really a specialist at prologues but that’s the way it is and you just have to deal with it," he said. "Of course you need to go full gas but the wind is important. I just want to get started. The results today won’t decide the race over three weeks and I’m just going to measure my performance against myself and not worry too much about others."
After over an hour, Andriy Grivko is dislodged from the hotseat thanks to a storming ride from Brett Lancaster (Orica-GreenEdge). The Australian cruised past the line in a time of 7:24, 4 seconds quicker than Grivko.
Tour debutant Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) is out on the course. There is a lot of buzz around this young Frenchman's future prospects, and as he told Cyclingnews earlier this week, he may be worth keeping an eye on this year.
An explosive climber, Pinot won't be disappointed to come in 12 seconds down on Lancaster in a prologue like this.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) posts the new best time, just a fraction of a second quicker than Lancaster. The pair were locked on the same time at the 3.5km point too, but the Norwegian just about had to staying power to nudge ahead of him by the finish. Sky still have four strong time triallists to come - Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Michael Rogers and, of course, Bradley Wiggins.
Marcus Burghardt is wearing a base layer bearing the handwritten legend "Thanks for coming to my birthday." The German grins, zips up his skinsuit and gets down to the serious business of rolling down the start ramp and tackling the Tour prologue.
Burghardt's BMC teammate Steve Cummings told our men at the finish line that the course wasn't too technical, but that the potholes on the road were something of a concern. In spite of his solid time, Cummings also said that he had been warned by his team not to take any risks on the corners - they just wanted him to get around safely and ready to help Cadel Evans later in the race.
Mark Cavendish rolls up into the starthouse and readies himself to launch his Tour de France. After insisting he was determined to retain his green jersey earlier in the year, the world champion acknowledged on Friday thatSky's priority had to be helping Bradley Wiggins to take yellow
. That said, it would take a brave man to bet against the Manxman adding to his tally of 20 Tour stage wins, even without a dedicated lead-out train.
Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Movistar) can only manage 21st place, well off Boasson Hagen's 7:24. The Norwegian average 51.9kph over the 6.4km course.
Cavendish crosses the line in 13th place, 11 seconds down on his teammate Boasson Hagen, a very solid performance from the Manxman. It will be fascinating to see his sprint battles with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan et al, with speculation rife that Cavendish's focus on staying the course at the Olympics has blunted his speed slightly. Monday's stage to Tournai will reveal a little more on this sub-plot.
The veteran Andreas Klöden finds himself with a little more freedom at this Tour than he might previously have anticipated, given the absence of the injured Andy Schleck from the RadioShack-Nissan line-up. The German is out on the course as clouds darken the skies overhead.
A solid rouleur, Klöden is better over longer distances than in a brief effort like this, but he comes home in 7th place, 8 seconds down on Boasson Hagen.
The sun bursts back through the clouds as a determined Sylvain Chavanel powers into the final kilometre, bedecked in the colours of French time trial champion.
Chavanel looked on song as he rocketed through the closing kilometres and those impressions are confirmed by the time-keeper, as he takes the provisional lead with a time of 7:21, 3 seconds quicker than Boasson Hagen.
"I've done good time trials since the start of the year and I've been thinking about this prologue since I won the French title last week, but there are still great riders to come. The pure beasts," Chavanel gasped into a France Television microphone thrust under his face at the line. And what size chainring will Tony Martin use today? "I don't know," Chavanel says. "But it's big."
Michael Rogers (Sky) gingerly negotiates one of the course's two roundabouts, and then quickly gets back up to pace.
The decibel level on the course are just about the go up a notch, as local hero Philippe Gilbert - resplendant in the colours of Belgian time trial champion - readies himself for his start.
Tomorrow's finish in Seraing was designed with the Walloon in mind, and after a troubled classics campaign, Gilbert would dearly love to get his first win of the season on such a grand stage.
Michael Rogers, meanwhile, is unable to trouble Chavanel's time, and he comes in some 17 seconds off the pace.
Pierre Rolland is the next man to start, and his Europcar team approaches this race under a real cloud following news of a French investigation into allegations of the use of corticoids and intravenous drips on the team. Rolland is one of a striking number of the team's riders have reported knee injuries over the past twelve months, and he missed Paris-Nice in March, but he showed signs of form at the Dauphine three weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Gilbert is cheered heartily as he powers through the centre of Liege.
Janez Brajkovic (Astana) has long promised much in the grand tours, but he is yet to deliver a stand-out performance over three weeks. The Slovenian is next to start.
Gilbert has scorched through the intermediate time check in second place, just 2 seconds behind Chavanel, to the delight of the home fans.
Pierre Rolland comes across the line 38 seconds down on Chavanel after battling his bike over the final kilometres.
A corridor of noise greets Gilbert as he passes under the red kite and rockets towards the Boulevard d'Avroy.
After a fine start, Gilbert faded slightly in the closing stages, but he'll pleased to get to the finish in provisional 4th place, 5 seconds down on Chavanel.
"There's normally a bit of stress in the days before the Tour, but it's good to have it started," Pierre Rolland says at the finish line.
Richie Porte (Sky) sets off with purpose down the start ramp and he'll expect to trouble Chavanel's provisional lead.
Ivan Basso threatened much and delivered little at the Giro d'Italia after his Liquigas-Cannondale team made the running for the opening two weeks. The Italian is at the Tour with the stated aim of helping Vincenzo Nibali, although he may be harbouring ambitions of making amends for that low-key Giro showing. First up, though, he'll be happy simply to get the prologue out of the way.
Another local favourite, Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan) is the next starter, and just behind him comes George Hincapie (BMC), who starts a record 17th Tour de France, and is chasing a record-equalling 16th Tour finish.
Ivan Basso is never at home in prologues, and he has already conceded 10 seconds over the opening 3.5 kilometres of this afternoon's course.
Basso reaches the finish in 55th place, 22 seconds down on Chavanel.
Levi Leipheimer sets off in his familiar mantis-like position. Meanwhile, Bradley Wiggins clips into his pedals to start his final warm-up outside the Sky team bus.
Gilbert will win the duel for best local rider, as Maxime Monfort reaches the finish in provisional 17th place.
11th place thus far for George Hincapie, 13 seconds down on Chavanel. "It hit me on the podium that I was breaking the record for participations, I probably should have been thinking about the effort," Hincapie said. "The priority is to help Cadel."
A disappointing showing thus far from Levi Leipheimer, who is 14 seconds off his teammate Chavanel after 3.5km. Meanwhile, Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) has put in a decent ride to take provisional 3rd place at the finish.
It wasn't much better over the back end of the course for Leipheimer, who comes home a disappointed 21 seconds down.
Richie Porte could only manage the 24th best time to date, by the way, 15 seconds down on Chavanel. His Sky teammate Chris Froome is the next man to take the start.
"The Tour isn't won in the prologue," said a downbeat Leipheimer at the finish.
Second at the Vuelta a Espana, Chris Froome had a quiet start to 2012, but he made a return to form at the Criterium du Dauphine in June. It will be interesting to see what he produces today.
Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) gets his Tour underway - incidentally, his cousin Dan Martin (Garmin-Barracuda), crossed the line 17 seconds down on Chavanel in provisional 35th place.
Next up is Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), who has been in astounding form in recent weeks, and the Slovak could well trouble Chavanel's time.
Chris Froome can't better Chavanel's time, and the Briton crosses the line in 6th place, 9 seconds off the Frenchman.
The next man who could trouble Chavanel is David Zabriskie, and we're waiting for news of the American from the intermediate time check.
Peter Sagan overshot a roundabout, and had to unclip to stay upright. His chances of yellow have surely unravelled by this point.
Zabriskie makes no impression on the leaderboard, and comes in 19 seconds down on Chavanel.
Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) are both out on the course. Meanwhile, Sagan sprints to the line in 29th place, 16 seconds down on Chavanel.
World time trial champion Tony Martin takes a deep breath and then rolls down the start ramp. The German is rolling a massive gear, and understandly, he takes his time before settling into the aerodynamic position.
Cadel Evans is a study in concentration as he warms up. Interestingly, the Australian has elected not to wear the yellow jersey in today's prologue, and is intead wearing his normal BMC skinsuit.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) makes his return to the Tour for the first time since his suspension for his implication in the Operacion Puerto blood doping inquiry. Meanwhile, Frank Schleck performs more or less to expectations in the prologue, ceding 30 seconds to Sylvain Chavanel.
Puncture for Tony Martin! The German's hopes of yellow have disappeared.
Martin punctured before he got to the first check, so it's hard to get a feel for how well he was riding. Meanwhile, Van Garderen has taken the second quickest time so far at the finish, 3 seconds down on Chavanel. The American was 6 down after 3.5km, but he finished very well indeed.
The disappointment is etched across Tony Martin's face, but he is finishing out his effort as best he can.
Martin comes home 16 seconds down on Chavanel. Were it not for the puncture, he would certainly have been there or thereabouts.
Bradly Wiggins takes the starter's count and sets off on his Tour adventure.
Wiggins is instantly into the tuck position and pedalling with his typical fluidity.
"If I hadn't had to change bikes, I would have done a good time and maybe fought for yellow," said Tony Martin. "It's very disappointing."
Robert Gesink crosses the line 18 seconds off the pace. Out on the course, Wiggins hits is safely through the first of the roundabouts as he powers along the Meuse.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) is the next man to start.
Wiggins is only in 10th place at the 3.5km check, 6 seconds down on Chavanel.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck comes in 20 seconds down on Chavanel.
Into the final kilometres for Wiggins, who need to pull out something special if he is to win.
Wiggins gets it - just. After a cautious start, the Englishman opened up in the back end of the course and crosses the line 0.42 up on Chavanel.
Bitter disappointment for Chavanel. He can hardly have expected to have been within half a second of Wiggins this morning, but when he was six seconds up at the midway point, he must have started to believe.
Fabian Cancellara is away, the third last starter, and surely the only man who can deny Wiggins yellow.
Fabian Cancellara is away, the second last starter, and surely the only man who can deny Wiggins yellow.
Cadel Evans rolls down the start ramp and gets his Tour defence underway.
Ryder Hesjedal can't trouble Wiggins, and he crosses the line 12 seconds down.
Vincenzo Nibali is on course for a fine time - he was just 4 seconds down at 3.5km, and he won't lose much ground today. 12th place for Nibali, 10 seconds down on Wiggins.
Best time for Cancellara at the 3.5km point, 1 second quicker than Chavanel.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) crosses the line 29 seconds down.
Evans is one second quicker than Wiggins at 3.5km, 6 behind Cancellara. Who has dosed his effort best over the course?
Into the final kilometre for Cancellara, who can sense yellow.
A lacklustre showing from Thomas Voeckler, who has Cancellara on his tail.
Cancellara beats Wiggins by seven seconds, and looks set to take yellow this evening.
Cadel Evans will concede 10 seconds to Bradley Wiggins, as he comes home in 13th place.
Susan here, wrapping things up.
What a win for Cancellara! He really needed it to save something this season.
And here is the top ten for the stage and naturally also for the GC:
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack-Nissan 0:07:13
2 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:07
3 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-Quickstep
4 Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:00:10
5 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling 0:00:11
6 Brett Lancaster (Aus) Orica GreenEdge Cycling Team
7 Patrick Gretsch (Ger) Argos - Shimano 0:00:12
8 Denis Menchov (Rus) Katusha Team 0:00:13
9 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team
10 Andriy Grivko (Ukr) Astana Pro Team 0:00:15
Yellow for RadioShack-Nissan! And it looks like Wiggins has thrown down the gauntlet, with an extremely strong performance here today.
That's it for the opener of the 2012 Tour de France. We'll be back again tomorrow with stage one, so be sure to join us again then.